Memphis Group, Design with wonder

adf web magazineChaise Sing Sing Sing, Shiro Kuramata, 1985. Chair, Pastoe, the Netherlands. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore adf web magazineCarlton, Ettore Sottsass, 1981. Room divider, wood, laminate. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore adf web magazineBig sur, Peter Shire, 1986. Couch, lacquered wood, wool. Gritti, Andrea Branzi, 1981. Bookcase, wood, laminate, metal, and glass. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore adf web magazineUntitled, 2001, Ettore Sottsass. A series of rare lithography showing the genius of Ettore Sottsass’s design and artistic expression when he’s free from 3 dimensional forces. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Miglioreadf web magazineRiviera, 1981, Michele De Lucchi. Chair, Laminate and cotton. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Miglioreadf web magazineTahiti, Ettore Sottsass, 1981. Table lamp, metal, laminate The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore adf web magazineGinza, Masanori Umeda, 1982. Cabinet, wood, laminate. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore adf web magazineEmerald, Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1985. Sideboard, wood, laminate. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore adf web magazineEllissima, Aldo Cibic, 2019. Bookacase, glossy lacquered wood. Aldo Cibic is one of the few, maybe the only designer who keeps the spirit of Memphis Group alive today. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore adf web magazineBel Airi, Peter Shire, 1982. Armchair, Lacquered wood, wool. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Memphis Group is now displayed at Sea World Culture and Art Center in Shenzhen

The opportunity to remember a historic protagonist of design and trigger new reflections about the contemporary scenario, is being offered to me, once again, by an exhibition.

Memphis Group, one of the most rebel and controversial movement in the history of design is now displayed at Sea World Culture and Art Center in Shenzhen. Established in 1981, Memphis Group has been a game changer of postmodern design, breaking the chain of codes, conventions and schemes the modern design was based on. His members can be considered the rebel kids of Bauhaus, since they took the distance from the “10 principles of good design” by Dieter Rams, driven by the need to free the design to embrace more playful, experimental, unpredictable directions. Design had never been so close to art before.

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The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

Although the group lasted only 7 years, it forever marked the history of design, defining new possibilities for expression and action for generations of creatives who escape labels and schemes, and look for the power of enchanting, provocative and highly engaging narratives. The Austrian-Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, founder of Memphis group, was considered a controversial figure and described as “impertinent” by the New Yorker. He could be insolent, indeed, because he was motivated by an indomitable conviction in the “magic” side of design, which, he believed, should escape the cold logic of pure functionalism and rationalism which are responsible for mechanization in the modern time.

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Untitled, 2001, Ettore Sottsass. A series of rare lithography showing the genius of Ettore Sottsass’s design and artistic expression when he’s free from 3 dimensional forces. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

He cultivated the ideal of design as a catalyst of possibilities, rather than certainties and advocated colors, spectacular combinations, craftsmanship. Some of the distinguished memebers of the Group, besides Ettore Sottass, are Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Martine Bedin, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and George Sowden.

Memphis Group brought together distant worlds and references, from Pop Art, art forms from Asia, Africa and Latin America, geometric volumes inspired by architecture, merged into a visual language which is still a source of inspiration in design, fashion and art.

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Riviera, 1981, Michele De Lucchi. Chair, Laminate and cotton. The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Big sur, Peter Shire, 1986. Couch, lacquered wood, wool.
Gritti, Andrea Branzi, 1981. Bookcase, wood, laminate, metal, and glass.
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

The main goal was to free the modern design from the idea that a designer should pick elements from guidelines and define the “right” style and taste, as it was a calculation.

Memphis Group proposes to use and combine design expressions, from colors to patterns and materials, as a conversation, free forms of poetry, which can bring emotion, empathy, inspiration into daily life. For the same reason, their design is infused with wonders, humor, kitsch, and childlike nature.

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Ginza, Masanori Umeda, 1982. Cabinet, wood, laminate.
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Carlton, Ettore Sottsass, 1981. Room divider, wood, laminate.
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Tahiti, Ettore Sottsass, 1981. Table lamp, metal, laminate
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Bel Airi, Peter Shire, 1982. Armchair, Lacquered wood, wool.
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Chaise Sing Sing Sing, Shiro Kuramata, 1985. Chair, Pastoe, the Netherlands.
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Emerald, Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1985. Sideboard, wood, laminate.
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

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Ellissima, Aldo Cibic, 2019. Bookacase, glossy lacquered wood. Aldo Cibic is one of the few, maybe the only designer who keeps the spirit of Memphis Group alive today.
The Previous and Present Lives of Memphis Style, Exhibition, Sea World Culture and Art Center, Shenzhen, 29/05 – 31/07, 2022. Photo Enza Migliore

Whether the world of design theory and practice would question the claims and principles that Memphis Group brought on the stage, the value of their critical speculation and their liberating language has absolutely contributed to the evolution of design. This is especially evident nowadays when the Group’s reflections on the concept of design and furnishing, on their limits and aesthetic possibilities, on their social and communicative function and on the creative and productive aspect, as well as on the economic models underpinning them, are now more relevant than ever.

Another aspect that demonstrates the timeless value and influence of Memphis’s work, despite the short life of the group, is that their projects, designed between 1981 and 1988, are still produced today in unlimited series, in the belief that design should be understood as a means of communication and not as an expression of elitist art. The Memphis company has been founded, which is now managed by Alberto Bianchi Albrici, who purchased it in 1996 from Ernesto Gismondi, owner of Artemide, after ten years as managing director.

To confirm the cultural flexibility of the Memphis Group philosophy, led by a strong spirit of adaptation with societal and cultural evolutions, different projects, movements, and brands arose within it. After the first active phase of Memphis Group, Meta Memphis was launched, from 1989 and 1991, as “an innovative experiment that involved no longer designers, but internationally renowned artists engaged for the first time in the design of objects and furniture. Inspired by the Greek word metamorphosis (transformation), the collection rethinks the ways and archetypes of living sedimented in the collective memory through conceptual reappraisals and unusual formal, material, and functional associations.” Some examples include Alighiero Boetti Orologio, a wall clock where the hours are handwritten in italics, making it illegible. Pier Paolo Calzolari deconstructs furnishings by mixing incongruous materials and transforming them into surprising objects.

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Orogio, Alighiero Boetti, Collection Meta Memphis, 1989. Wall clock made of photogravure steel.
The hours are handwritten by artist Alighiero Boetti. Photo credits Memphis Milano website

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Rivolo, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Collection Meta Memphis, 1989. Stoneware, wood and Wien straw chair.
Photo credits Memphis Milano website

Around 1997, The Memphis company decided to historicize and protect the Memphis-Milano collections by ceasing to use the brand for new products. Therefore, the Post Design brand was founded, which gives voice to both old members of Memphis Group, such as Sottsass himself and Nathalie Du Pasquier, and other very talkative, famous designers and artists, together with young ones. “While Memphis-Milano represents the ability to bring together various personalities in a powerful collective voice, Post Design is declaredly open to multilingualism, leaving room for individual poetics. […] This is how the collections Mobili lunghi and Lo specchio di Saffo came about: rarefied and poetic lights and items of furniture that reference the world of myth, memory, and dreams.” (https://www.memphis-milano.com/history/)

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Lo specchio di Saffo, Ettore Sottsass, Collection Post design, 1998. Nickel-plated metal mirrors, trolley and stool in evaporated beech, crown in gilded brass. Photo credits Memphis Milano website

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Fractals, Johanna Grawunder, Collection Post design, 1999. Ceiling light in alumimium sheet with an halogen lamp 150W. Photo credits Memphis Milano website

Memphis Srl is the owner of the brands Memphis-Milano, Meta-Memphis, and Post Design, reflecting three different moments of its history.

Going back over the work of this group, I was inspired with a lot of thoughts on contemporary design. The simplest, open question I want to address is: do we need more guidelines and objectivation or wonder and sensitivity to better design for the future? Could those aspects coexist without one prevailing? I believe Memphis’s work through all its evolutions and speculation, represents a solid reference for critical investigation and practice.


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